At the start of the 21st century, in the peak of its powers, The Grand Russets, in Venice, shut its gate and stopped business. The owner of the restaurant, Marco Grizianno—the world’s greatest chef—had passed away. His successor, the mysterious Bon Vivanati, decided to cease its operations, to the surprise of many fans from across the globe.
At the start of the 21st century, in the peak of its powers, The Grand Russets, in Venice, shut its gate and stopped business. The owner of the restaurant, Marco Grizianno—the world’s greatest chef—had passed away. His successor, the mysterious Bon Vivanati, decided to cease its operations, to the surprise of many fans from across the globe. A year after, however, the lights in the restaurant suddenly came on; and the world awaited the opening of its big shiny gates. For now, they stayed locked.
Not long after, the world witnessed the steady disappearances of famous Chef de Cuisines and prospective Sous Chefs. Afterward, the best cookbooks around the world were also purchased by Bon Vivanati, each at a ridiculously high price. In the days that followed, the restaurant’s chimneys began emitting bulbous steams of mouth-watering aromas; and no one but famous food critics were allowed entry. For the better part of a decade, it continued like this until almost every food writer in the world had written something extremely positive about The Grand Russets.
And so brings us to Mr. Lennon Grayson, a young English man of twenty-one, so intrigued by the stories of The Grand Russets that he left behind a portentous engineering career to become a chef. Like the best avant-garde chefs in the world, he wanted to work in The Grand Russets. Four years later, Lennon became a sous-chef at a big restaurant in London; and was the expert cook at making desserts.
A tragedy soon befell him, however—although only Lennon saw it as such. A co-worker of his, who was not half as good as he was, received an employment letter from The Grand Russets! Lennon was furious. He resigned as sous-chef immediately and set up a confectionary booth on the same street as The Grand Russets. At least here, he would be noticed; or so he thought.
Every morning, on his way to his booth, he stopped right outside the gates of The Grand Russets and looked within, watching shadows dine behind the restaurant’s hall drapes. He often caught a whiff of whatever was being cooked, and—for he had a good nose—guessed correctly the dish being prepared. Lennon, however, didn’t get invited into The Grand Russets no matter his efforts. He suffered one more year of disappointment. Although he made the nicest confectioneries, his business lacked patronage. His customers assumed he overcharged.
If only they understood the art behind the dish.
On the fifth year of its re-emergence, The Grand Russets headlined the Venetian papers. Two hundred of the world’s esteemed dignitaries were invited for a thousand course dinner (the first of its kind) at the restaurant. The paper advised, on the words of Bon Vivanati, that all dignitaries come financially prepared; because no dish was inexpensive. At the end of the event, the paper stated, The Grand Russets would shut up shop forever.
Although this news was greeted with worldwide approval, Lennon thought it a misfortune. Now he would never have the pleasure of serving, or even dining, at The Grand Russets.
On the day of the dinner, Lennon did his customary rounds on the great restaurant; but today, he caught a man watching him from behind the drapes. Feeling uneasy, he walked briskly to his booth and, for the better part of an hour, admired The Grand Russets from there.
Lennon stirred from his daydream. A man—in his early forties or thereabout— stood outside his booth; wearing a black fedora and a matching black suit; with his hands behind his back.
“I see you admire The Grand Russets,” said the customer, his voice bearing a slight Italian accent.
“I dream often of it,” sighed Lennon. “You know, I can tell what dish is being prepared by simply sniffing the air;” which he did at that very moment, making the customer clap in astonishment.
“A shame they only hire the best chefs.”
Lennon was slighted; and rambled on about the same co-worker who, tragically, got hired.
“Well,” said the man mounting a stool, “maybe you aren’t as good as you think.”
Lennon saw this as a challenge and demanded the customer order his best confections. A pound of fudge cake was requested. When it was served, the man laughed, not at the dish, but at the price.
“This, for ten euros? Tell me,” said the man spooning the fudge, “what is the art behind this dish?”
Lennon was vexed. Couldn’t the man see the elegance of the dish? Couldn’t he see this beautifully made fudgy creamy chocolate cake for what it was; a royalty among fudges? Did he fail to see the richness of the cream; the effervescent sponginess of the cake; or did he not see the ganache within and atop the garnished truffles? Did he not?
The man noticed his surreptitious ire. “Never mind that. Tell me the story of this dish. Surely every dish should have one—perhaps the inspiration behind its preparation—yes?”
This time Lennon was taken aback by the subtle composure the man bore. He realized then that his customer was well versed in culinary art; and decided to stay quiet.
“May I tell you a story my grandfather told me?” said the customer. The tale went thus: in the 19th century, Antonio Giovanni, a famous Italian chef had put the Seven Years’ war on hold by inviting Napoleon and George the third, to dine in his restaurant. Both monarchs enjoyed themselves so much that amidst all the eating, they became jolly friends. When the last course was served, however, hot chocolate fudge—the first of its kind— there was a conflict. Brown nectar, the chef called it. He made them believe that it was an ancient meal that great conquerors ate in days of yore. Hearing this, each King wanted the fudge for himself and offered half of his empire in exchange for it. Still, none could afford it but the Duke of Wellington.
“…he offered peace,” finished the man, “which was what the chef truly wanted.”
“Gobbledygook!” said Lennon, believing none of it.
“Doesn’t matter,” said the man. “The lesson is simple: the chef had the world in his hands. Why? Because he made a simple dish look extraordinary. Now, doesn’t that tale make the gobbling of this fudge more exciting? What’s the name?”
“No. No. The name of the dish?”
“Creamy Chocolate fudge—”
“Boring!” cried the man, in despair, as if the name had pierced his heart. “That’s rather drab. Let’s try again. What’s the story?”
This time Lennon tried to think of one but failed.
“You see,” said the customer swallowing the last morsel of the fudge, “it’s called culinary art for a reason. The plate is the canvas and you are the painter. But what is the precursor of the dish; the name! Your customers don’t want to eat a meal that sounds unexciting. They want to be intrigued! And what brings that intrigue; why, the story of course! You must understand this. The art of a dish goes beyond the garnitures.” The man stood with a flourish. “Don’t misunderstand me. Your fudge is exemplary… May I have the recipe?”
Lennon wrote it down on a serviette and handed it to him.
“Hmm, I see. Excellent… the cream within the cake and… wow, artful! Have you thought of a name yet?”
No, said Lennon.
“Well, Lennon,” said the customer, taking his leave, “you may have to, for the next time we meet. Goodbye!”
Lennon realized the man hadn’t paid for the fudge but desisted from reminding him. After all, he had learned quite a lot from him. Before evening, Lennon locked up the shop. He wouldn’t want to be caught in the commotion of the press that was to arrive that night. Putting his greatcoat around him, he walked home. A few feet away from his shop, Lennon discovered a letter lying unclaimed on the cobbled street. Curious as to its being there, he opened it.
It was a letter of invitation to The Grand Russets addressed to (surprisingly) no one. Lennon couldn’t believe his luck. He shoved the letter into his coat and ran home. This was his chance to enter The Grand Russets! He, at once, donned his best suit, hurried back to The Grand Russets, and waited, amongst the onlookers, for the two hundred dignitaries to arrive. To his great surprise, as he joined the dignitaries, he met no opposition at the gate. Once they were all inside the restaurant’s confines, the gates were shut again; and the walk into the hall commenced.
The Grand Russets hall was grand and gothic. Its walls were adorned with gilded tapestries. Even the tables and chairs were ornamented with royal upholsteries. The windows were arched and quite low and overlooked the waters below so that it felt to the guests like they feasted out in open waters. There were ample seats, at every table, for each guest to sit, comfortably, with their cortège. For Lennon who came unaccompanied, he sat alone.
There were no introductions—only a red menu— and the hors d’oeuvre, were served. The dishes came hot and fast, so every guest had just a minute to select a dish from the platters. A waiter brought the Bruschetta, the Crostini and the sumptuous Saganaki to Lennon’s table. Each dish cost a thousand Euros.
But the waiter was very impatient and in a second, he was gone. More dishes came, all for the same price; and Lennon discovered he couldn’t afford any. In little less than an hour, the hors d’oeuvre was served and gobbled.
Soup! Yet again, a waiter brought the Acquacotta, the Caldo verde, the Chestnut bisque, and tasty bacon soup. Lennon would surely have wished to have one of these soups but he couldn’t afford the cost. Again, he ate nothing.
Fish! These came as fast as the soups. Lennon watched hungrily as dignitaries guzzled Lohikeittos, Steckerlfischs, Lutefisks, and washed them down with expensive wines. Subsequent courses followed; Lennon ate none. Even when the main course was served, Lennon sat frozen in his seat, hungry and miserable. The magnates, on the other hand, spent lavishly. Chequebooks upon chequebooks were written in, and with alarming speed were emptied out. Wads of money were being passed out in frenzy. Lennon thought it all a very mad affair and was glad he couldn’t partake in it. He wondered why a dish as simple as sirloin steak would sell for as high as twenty thousand Euros; or why salmon with roast asparagus was overpriced at thirty. It was all so very gruesome; an insult to the culinary arts.
Before long, ten courses had been served; and an equivalent ten menus had been changed. And after a long time, when these ten courses had been repeated (with different dishes being served), eight hundred courses had been run through. By this time a few dignitaries called it a night and left the restaurant. But if they had known better, they would have stayed, because an auction for the best meals soon began. It started when a dish had fifty servings and about a hundred dignitaries still present had to up their bid to have a piece. The fascinating thing was that the selling price of the last dish would always be the asking price of the next dish. Dignitaries who were outbid excused themselves from the hall. Luckily, Lennon wasn’t affected by these rules, so he kept his seat.
As the hall cleared, Lennon caught a man staring, intently, at him from across his table. He looked familiar in that black suit of his but Lennon couldn’t put a name to the face. Like Lennon, the man sat alone, and by the look of things, he hadn’t eaten anything. The auction progressed fast and soon, it was down to the last ten courses which were desserts. A fat man—English of course—one of the richest men in Europe, outbid almost everyone. When it came down to the last course, he had just one contender: a widow, who was quite wealthy.
The last dish was mysterious. It was put on a gold platter which sat upon a resplendent pedestal. For some reason, it was covered. This made it the best dish of the night. The bid started at a hundred thousand euros. The stranger sitting across Lennon inclined his head inquisitively as if he were asking Lennon to join the bid.
But Lennon had no reason or money to join such a mad auction; so he sat quietly and watched as the auction neared its end. The fat man and the widow dangled in between a hundred to two hundred thousand Euros; until, suddenly, the fat man jumped to his feet. “Five hundred thousand! And I better meet Bon Vivanati himself!”
The widow yielded—for the price was quite ridiculous—and left the hall. It seemed as if the fat man would win. But Lennon’s gawker now fixed him an insolent stare as if he couldn’t believe Lennon would let the fat man gobble the grand dish.
And then Lennon, all of a sudden, recognized the stranger. It was the same man who had ordered the fudge at his booth. Everything suddenly became clear: the man’s visit; the red letter; and the intrigue about the last dish; everything!
“One million!” cried Lennon.
The amount was so outrageous that even the fat man was taken aback. He gave Lennon a curious look, grunted, and left the hall quietly. Upon the fat man’s exiting, the grand dish was brought to Lennon. When the waiter opened it, he found inside a Creamy Chocolate Fudge, just how he prepared it!
“Art,” said the man sitting across Lennon, who was, without doubt, the proprietor of The Grand Russets. “Every dish is priceless as long as it has a nice tale to it. Have a spoon of your fudge.”
Lennon took a spoonful and decided his fudge had never tasted better. “How much do I owe?” he asked knowing full well the answer. The man did owe him ten euros after all.
“Why,” said the man, “not a single penny! It’s your recipe after all…” He paused and sighed. “This took five years to organize, Lennon. It’s my retirement, you see. It’s only befitting you name the best dish—your chocolate fudge, perhaps in honor of the mysterious Bon Vivanati, which is I…”
“Did all that really happen?” asked the sous-chef sitting at Lennon’s table.
“Doesn’t matter. The dish, although simple, was deemed almost priceless. That is the power of chefs.” After saying that, Lennon (now a man in his sixties) reclined in his seat, sipped a vintage Verdicchio, and watched proudly as the waiters of his restaurant (The Royal Egduf) served the courses. Soon, it was time for the last course meal. What else could it be but his favorite dessert?
“Ah! The Bon Vivanati!” cried a young billionaire behind him. “I have heard tales of this dessert. How much?”
A hundred thousand euros said the waiter.
“I bid two hundred!” another billionaire declared.
Lennon smiled and raised his glass to his sous-chef. “Let the auction begin!”
It was his retirement after all.